If space is the final frontier, They Might Be Giants are rock-and-roll pioneers.
The 10-year old Sudbury-bred duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell do go where no band have gone before in their determined chronicling of life's twisted oddities, minutiae, and mundanities, all to irresistible pop beats. The band's fourth, and latest, record, Apollo 18 (due in stores this Tuesday) is TMBG's eccentric pop rock at its most sparkling. From the cheery "The Statue Got Me High" and the old-time rock-and-roll feel of "Hypnotist of Ladies" to the raucous "Dig My Grave" and the multi-song buffet of "Fingertips," Apollo 18 is a melange of humor, irony, trivia, and pointed insight.
Part sly and part surreal stream-of-consciousness, and always highly visual, the lyrics have sharp edges that play against the bouncy melodies. "The ghost of my dance instructor pushed me into an open grave . . . Turn around, there's a human skull on the ground" and "One day mother will die and I'll get the money," from "Turnaround" and "I Palindrome I," respectively, are not your usual pop lyrics. It's like Edgar Allan Poe and David Lynch meeting the Monkees.
"Yeah, it's funny, when David Lynch was riding high, all of the sudden we were like the new David Lynch," Linnell says wryly. "It's an interesting idea, but I don't know how much: for one thing, a lot of things he does are really sexy."
Adds Flansburgh, "We're about as unsexy as you can possibly get."
"-- without being against it," Linnell finishes. "People just invest a lot in the importance of songwriters and people in rock bands singing straight from the heart. We're earnest, we're totally involved: it's all we do, it is our lives. But people often talk about what we're doing as if, because it doesn't have this emotionalism, it's somehow not invested in with the same kind of meaning."
"I think people get the impression that it's a parody," Flansburgh says, "that because we don't engage in histrionics, get into the full U2 degree of crying on stage, we don't care about what we do. In fact, we're beyond caring. We're really compulsive about it."
It would be easier to take They Might Be Giants as a mere joke if their music weren't so infectious, or if they weren't able to carry you from one genre to another. One minute they're into the Roky Erickson-like garage-rock rave-up of "Dig My Grave," with its slide guitar, swooning organ lines, and nasty vocals (sounding like the old technique of singing through a harmonica). The next they're into the light pop of "I Palindrome I," with the most unlikely sing-along hook: "I am a snake head eating the head on the opposite side." The weird thing is, they do get you to sing along.
Then there's the swaggering baritone-sax arrangement that goes with the novelty-jazz swing of "Actual Size": "She's actual size, but she seems much bigger to me. Squares may look distant in her rear-view mirror/But they're actual size as she drives away." You can sense how much TMBG care by how well they play all this stuff. For parody to work, it has to be played perfectly.
All the band's many faces: witty, cynical, sincere: are touched upon in one brilliant set piece, "Fingertips," one of the few works that utilizes CD programming technology. It comprises 21 song snippets, which, if played in "shuffle" mode, will separate and show up anywhere on the album.
Apollo 18 not only debuts the duo as producers, it introduces them to the world as spokesband for International Space Year, which they became involved with while doing photo research for the cover. Supported by NASA, International Space Year promotes the idea of international, rather than national, space exploration.
"We were flattered when they asked us," says Linnell. "It's not everyday that a band like us gets asked to do anything for anybody. I mean, we're not the official band of much."
"Our tour is part of the calendar of events of International Space Year," adds Flansburgh.
As for the space theme, the duo say it's something that's been recurring for years; the instrumental "Spacesuit," from their new album, was the first song of their first show.
"We don't know what the inspiration for the title Apollo 18 is," explains Linnell. "We didn't even see The Right Stuff until after we did it. But Apollo 17 was the last lunar mission, so Apollo 18 the record is sort of a poor substitute for an actual moon launch. Cheaper for everybody. It seemed to tie together partly the idea of space but also being spaced out. Which seems silly to have as a theme for a record, but it's such a common state for me and John."